This little exhibition of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits amounts to only eight full size works and ten miniatures, but it’s full of interest. There are well known subjects here – notably Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, the favourite who gave rise to fabulous amounts of gossip concerning his relationship with the Queen; there are well known artists – English miniaturists Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. But the pleasure of Love’s Labour’s Found isn’t just the loveliness of some of the work but the light it sheds on the scholarship brought to bear on identifying sitters and artists.
What strikes you first here is the Dudley/Elizabeth combination: two full length portraits juxtaposed, and two miniatures the size of round earrings, painted by Hilliard. The Dudley portrait, from the workshop of the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen, shows a figure of immense assurance, painted a couple of years after the Earl’s wife freed him to pursue the Queen by conveniently falling fatally down the stairs. The portrait of the Queen from much later in her reign, shows her remarkably untouched by age in the face and hair, but terrifically bombastic in her stiff, flamboyant dress –this, folks, is actual power dressing.
If it weren’t for Covid, there would have been another portrait of a much younger Elizabeth, utterly different from later depictions, but that was held up in the US. But from the gossipy point of view, the riveting pieces are the miniatures of himself and the Queen that Dudley commissioned from Hilliard – tiny but perfect. If they were designed to be placed in a locket, the faces would have touched. Hmmm.
There’s another fine miniature by Hilliard, of an unknown gentleman, but in delicacy of execution those by Oliver are more beautiful; in particular, there’s a charming portrait of Lady Dorothy Sidney – presumably in the guise of Flora, her hair loose, with a garland of flowers – and another of Thomas Fones, mayor of Plymouth, with an asymmetric lovelock over one shoulder. Men back then were way more flamboyant, or had at least a more playful take on masculinity when it came to appearances.
At Philip Mould’s, the researchers have been busy during lockdown. One miniature that was previously assumed to have been of Walter Raleigh is now shown to be a depiction of the French king, Henri III, by the French miniaturist Jean Decourt. As a portrait it’s finely done – Henri’s slightly crooked smile and cynical expression tell you all you need to know. They have also identified a portrait of a gentleman with a beautiful ruff as by William Larkin, and successfully established that a fine portrait by George Gower is of William Arundell, not of his elder brother. Gower is one of the artists of the period who is less well known than he should be; besides the arresting expression of the sitter, the eye is drawn to the charming little Sagittarius figure at the top pointing an arrow at him.
What’s striking too is the change in portraiture within a generation; there’s a stiff portrait here by an unnamed artist (known as the Master of the Countess of Warwick) of Mary, Mrs Potter, showing a frozen girl imprisoned in a tight dress. Across the way, twenty years later, there’s a portrait from 1587 by Robert Peake which is full of character. The exhibition concludes with James I by an unknown artist. The king was famously reluctant to sit for portraits, and with his looks, you can see why.
Lawrence Hendra, who did much of the research for the exhibition, is an enthusiast for the ways that modern technology opens up scholarly work on the period. There’s now far greater access to infra-red imaging for instance, and the analysis of paint pigment, but what’s more significant is the way that galleries and collections have made available online high resolution digital images of their holdings. By being able to compare and contrast the styles and painterly techniques of different pictures, it’s possible to draw connections between them in a way that would have been far more difficult previously. A couple of generations ago, individual connoisseurs made comparisons of style from memory or from reference to black and white images – now the field is more open. There’s a lot more work out there still to be discovered; this charming exhibition is a mark of things to come.
Love’s Labours Found: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture is at Philip Mould & Co, and online, from April 21 to May 28